Review - Books - Fiction fails to honour fact

5th November 2010 at 00:00


By Sharon Dogar

Published by Andersen

ISBN: 978-0547501956


For many readers, Anne Frank's Diary inspires a level of devotion bordering on the religious. The text is sacrosanct: any attempt to tamper with it is tantamount to heresy.

I am not one of those readers. Anne Frank's Diary was not a seminal text of my childhood, a book I returned to again and again. I understand that when a book is as widely read as this, film-makers, playwrights and authors will want to produce their own artistic responses to it.

So my problem with Sharon Dogar's new book, Annexed - a retelling of the story of the secret annexe from the point of view of Anne's companion-in-hiding, Peter van Pels - is not that it has been done at all. My problem is that it has not been done very well.

Annexed opens with Peter, a dying 18-year-old, in the sick-bay of Mauthausen death camp. Thoughts he cannot suppress come crowding back and, in the first half of the book, he recollects his two years in hiding in an annexe at the top of an Amsterdam office building. For anyone - and that is almost everyone - who has read Anne Frank's Diary, the details are well known: the yearning for the outside world, the inevitable tensions, the burgeoning romance with Anne.

The second part of the novel imagines Peter's time in the concentration camps: the three-day cattle-car ride to Auschwitz; the loss of possessions, identity, loved ones; the death march to Mauthausen.

Spin-offs from existing texts tend to work in one of two ways. There are the sequels and prequels, in which authors take existing characters and invent new events in their lives. Others, such as Philip Pullman in his recent retelling of the Christ story, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, change salient details in order to pose new questions.

Sharon Dogar neither creates a new story nor adds anything substantial to the existing one. Yes, she offers the story of the secret annexe from a different point of view. But this misses the point somewhat. Good storytelling allows identification with each individual character. Anne Frank was a talented writer. If you want to identify with Peter van Pels - or any of the others in the annexe - read the original.

The account of Peter's time in the camps is, obviously, invented. But not for nothing is the word "unimaginable" often used in connection with the Holocaust. And Dogar is simply not a good enough writer to recreate the reality of the death camps.

There are other quibbles, too. Dogar occasionally plays with the time-frame of the annexe, "in the interest of continuity of narrative". There is precedent here, too: in The Quiet American, Graham Greene shifted events in the Vietnam War to fit his own fiction. Dogar is no Graham Greene. And, more importantly, there is no fictional narrative. She is merely recapping events in the annexe. Her events are the same as Anne's; only the point of view has shifted. Moving events to suit her own purposes is sheer laziness.

Then there are the errors. During a lesson in business letter writing, Peter begins his effort "Dear SirMadam". The construction is anachronistic - how many madams headed corporations in 1944? "Men, right," says the guard on the Auschwitz railway platform; two paragraphs later, he tells a man: "I said left, you fool."

Did anyone actually edit this book? Run-on sentences are legion; just as often, punctuation is lacking entirely.

More invidious, however, is the insinuation that Peter's lovesick carelessness was responsible for the ultimate betrayal of the annexe's occupants. Besotted by Anne, Dogar's Peter neglects security measures, overlooks warning signs. Peter van Pels was a real person. Implications such as these, even in the guise of fiction, are damaging and unfair.

The claustrophobia of the annexe is reasonably captured, and there are some genuinely poignant descriptions of the trials of captivity and isolation. But others have described the same thing more thoughtfully, more truthfully: better, frankly. Anne Frank among them. As a result, Annexed does not feel heretical. Mostly, it just feels a bit pointless.

About the author - Sharon Dogar

Sharon Dogar was born near Oxford in 1962. She has worked as a psychotherapist with adolescents for the past 10 years. Her previous books for young adults are Waves and Falling. She lives in Oxford with her husband and three children.

The verdict: 410.

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